Date of Award
Master of Arts
Timothy Baumann, Ernest Freeberg
While walking through an exhibit at the East Tennessee Historical Society last year, I witnessed one of the curators tape sheets of white paper on top of some of the paintings. The exhibit served to remember the artwork of the Knoxville artist Lloyd Branson (1853 – 1925). His paintings consisted of mostly portraits, large-scale history scenes, and peaceful landscapes. Of the portraits displayed in the gallery, a few of them showed nude women. One of the paintings titled The Weeping Magdalene referred to a biblical narrative of Mary Magdalene crying. The other painting was not a biblical story, but one likely pulled from the Romantic period entitled The Nude. It showed a woman distressed by a presumable nightmare. Both paintings show the women nude above the waist, but fabric covered their bodies below the waist. They were small-scale paintings whose purpose was to present a dramatic story. These two “controversial” paintings of nude women were, in fact, the very ones that the curator carefully covered up.
As I saw this action taking place, I wondered why. I would later find that the reasoning was due to a fifth grade Christian school group that was scheduled to tour the exhibit. The school requested that the paintings depicting nudity be covered during their visit. After consideration, the East Tennessee Historical Society staff decided to grant their request. My observation of censorship at this local historical society led me to question not only the organization’s decision, but also the reasons why the school felt it imperative to censor the art of their students. This event in Knoxville, Tennessee is reflective of a longer and complex history of Americans’ debates on nudity in art and also its ideas on whether that material is harmful to children. In this thesis, I take a public history approach to understand how museum censorship occurs and the history of why many Americans are uncomfortable with nudity in art. Through this approach, I argue that censorship can be harmful to the development of children and young students.
McPhaul, Sarah Katherine, "American Controversy: Nudity in Art and its Discontents. " Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2017.